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Bacolod City, Philippines Tuesday, January 29, 2019
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Come To Think Of It
with Carlos Antonio L. Leonardia

An ode to malls


My family and I don’t go to shopping malls often but if I could pick a favorite one in the Metro Bacolod area, it would be the Ayala District North Point in Talisay.

The reasons why I like it are more than just because I’m from the north and it’s the closest to my home among all the malls of the metro. I like it because it’s not your typical Filipino mall where most of the shopping and dining areas are always inside the air-conditioned sections. This mall had some usable outdoor spaces where families can hypothetically enjoy the fresh air and cool breeze in a relaxed and secure environment.

In a country where parks have always been a rarity, it was nice to have a shopping mall where a section of it could at least pretend to be one. It had outdoor spaces for families, kids, lovers, and even pets. The vibe was very relaxed and among the upscale malls in this island, it felt the most relaxed and least commercialized.

Maybe it was built ahead of its time, and the people of Talisay and Silay still preferred to go to Bacolod for their mega-malling needs while the people of Bacolod think Talisay is still too far away for their tastes. But the mall never really gained the following its developers thought it would and now, after most of the shops and dining options have left, it’s just a shell of what it could’ve been.

Maybe Filipinos just don’t like malls that are not 100 percent air-conditioned. Breathing the chilled and recirculated air that thousands of people from all walks of life are inhaling and exhaling in an enclosed space probably makes them feel luxurious and comfortable. This is a theory I came up with after seeing most open air sections of malls suffering low occupancy rates. Aside from Ayala’s District North Point, Robinson’s City Walk is also starting to look like a ghost town. In Iloilo, I hear that shops and restaurants are also having difficulties at their Ayala’s Atria. The one thing they have in common is the lack of air-conditioning in their common areas. It feels like Pinoys are just too fond of air-conditioning.

In a world where irresponsible energy use by humans is a known contributor to the greenhouse gas emissions that are linked to climate change, it’s disappointing to see open-air malls struggling while energy-hungry fully air-conditioned malls are thriving.

Unless we make a conscious effort to enjoy fresh air over recirculated air, mall developers are going to give consumers what they want. If we follow the trend, we can expect more air-conditioned malls and less of open-air malls to open in the future. Filipinos need to be taught that as long as our power comes from coal and other fossil-fueled power plants, the comfort and luxury that we associate with unnecessary air-conditioning comes with a heavy price that our grandchildren will most likely pay.

Anyway, aside from pointing out the potential harm it can inflict on our planet, there is nothing I can do about our countrymen’s unhealthy obsession with extreme air-conditioning. I’ll just take the remaining space in this article to share some thoughts on how these struggling non-aircon malls can survive because I like them and I don’t think they should close down.

First of all, outlets. Most outlet stores here in the Philippines and abroad are in commercial areas with open air common areas. Metro Bacolod has no outlet stores but we have areas for them and it makes me wonder why nobody has thought of it yet. If the mall in Talisay could put up some outlet stores, the thought of discounted stocks could lure the people who until now thought it wasn’t worth the trip there.

Another concept that I think could be given consideration would be making the unoccupied section of the struggling mall (in this case an entire second floor) a start-up incubator with a giant co-working space. The mostly vacant spaces could be rented out to local start-ups while the mall management maintains a giant co-working space with amenities like game and meeting rooms that can also be used by the start-up tenants. Filling up those potential office spaces with people, plus the current call center that is operating there now should generate enough commerce for a foodcourt/cafeteria and the restaurants there. If they can put up the outlet stores at the same time, that place could generate very interesting ideas and business models that could benefit the mall and the island.

Another angle the saviors of the mall could look at would be making it more family friendly. Tutoring and review centers, art and dance studios, spaces for alternative extra-curricular activities that parents and children could find interesting would draw in families during weekdays and parents could do the grocery shopping or hang out at coffee shops or snack bars while waiting.

There are other things that could be done to those struggling malls but as with most ideas, it is easier said than done. I’m sure that mall management tried their best to stop huge chunks of their mall from turning vacant and eventually shutting down. I’m commenting because I don’t like seeing those kinds of malls being threatened by closure because we don’t have a lot of that sort of malls. All the other box-type, fully air-conditioned malls can close down and I won’t care but people like me think about the fate of these smaller malls that actually had open spaces, character, were different and wasted less energy on excessive air-conditioning.

I’m not a mall rat. Never have been, probably never will be. I actually didn’t like it when it was announced another mall would be built along the highway, my daily route home because it would mean additional traffic. But now that it’s there, I can’t bear to see it waste away because the developers built a mall that many obviously don’t prefer, but it has become endearing to weirdos like me.

I’m still hopeful that some things are just ahead of their time and malls like the ones I mentioned are one of them. If the people running them can stay the course, maybe one day we will be pleasantly surprised at how it turns out.*  

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